What Offseason Moves Are Next for San Francisco 49ers with the Draft Complete?
Iron sharpens iron.
With 12 draft picks, the trade for Stevie Johnson and seven undrafted free agents, the 49ers have assembled a collection of talent that would make most other teams envious. When the 49ers cut down to the 53-man roster, you can expect a lot of talent to flood the rosters and practice squads around the league.
The competition for roster spots will be fierce. Those are the next moves the 49ers need to make to prepare for the 2014 season. They have enough talent to ensure intense competition for roles, both starting and reserve. They have plenty of depth; they just need to decide which players will suit up when it comes time for the regular season to begin.
Nothing the 49ers can do this offseason is more important than figuring out who will be on the roster come Sept. 7, so let’s look at some of the positional battles over which they’ll spend most of training camp agonizing.
Running Back Depth
The 49ers currently have six running backs either under contract or recently drafted. With Frank Gore still effective in his old age, that leaves five players battling for, in all likelihood, two or three roster slots and the carries that go with them.
Carlos Hyde is obviously going to get one of the remaining roster slots, and Marcus Lattimore is a lock for another one. The 49ers only went with four running backs on their opening day roster last season, meaning LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter and Jewel Hampton are battling for one spot.
The 49ers will likely try to find a trade suitor for James, as was rumored both before and after the draft, but the versatile Hunter has been challenged before, and he keeps on finding ways to earn carries for San Francisco. Someone has to be first off the bench behind Gore, but who it will be is anyone’s guess at this point.
As for my guess, I think Hyde will end up with the second-most carries for the 49ers, but he won’t have that many more than Lattimore. Assuming all backs are healthy, a Gore-Hyde-Lattimore rotation could make sense in San Francisco.
Wide Receiver Positioning
The 49ers currently have 11 receivers on their 90-man roster, which is an insane number for a team that rarely used more than two at a time last season. The addition of Stevie Johnson probably means we’ll see more three-man sets in 2014, but some notable names will be let go when roster cutdowns come.
Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin undoubtedly will be the starters, and Stevie Johnson should get first crack at the third receiver position. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson had 71.3 percent of his targets in the slot last year (subscription required), meaning he’d probably take over that role from Anquan Boldin in 2014.
The 49ers had only five receivers on their opening day roster last year, and if they stay at that number, you’d take Crabtree, Boldin and Johnson, and then add Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton battling for the fourth spot—maybe slot number three, ahead of Johnson—and call it a day.
That would leave Jon Baldwin, Brandon Lloyd and Kassim Osgood, among others, out in the cold. Baldwin and the veteran Lloyd will have to pass Patton, so that’s a battle to watch there. Ellington and Patton at this point have more potential than any of the other receivers, even if their 2014 production may not be as high.
Osgood is a special teams ace. He won’t make the team on his offensive potential, but I could definitely see the 49ers adding a receiver slot for him simply for the plays he makes on the coverage units. He’d be the logical sixth addition to the team.
One way or another, the 49ers look to start the season with better receivers than last year's group, which featured Baldwin, Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore.
Both Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin will make the 53-man roster; of that, there seems little doubt. The question is who will replace Jonathan Goodwin as the starting center come the start of the season?
Before the draft, the answer was obviously Kilgore. The 49ers extended Kilgore’s contract this offseason, paying him like a starting offensive lineman. Kilgore’s been in the system for three seasons, but has only 170 offensive snaps to his credit. He has never started, and the 16 snaps he saw in 2012 against Buffalo are his career most for a game.
The 49ers are obviously happy with Kilgore on their roster, or they wouldn’t have extended his contract. By drafting Martin in the third round, however, they indicated that they may not be fully sold on Kilgore’s starting chops, or at least that they’re interested in competition at the position.
Martin won’t turn 21 until November, so the 49ers could definitely sit him and let his frame fill out for another season, while he learns the line calls and other specifics. I expect him to have every chance to bump Kilgore off, however, and claim the least-certain starting spot on San Francisco’s roster.
NaVorro Bowman’s Replacement
The 49ers have two options already on the roster, and two rookies who could fill the hole, on a temporary basis.
Of the two returning players, Michael Wilhoite was the choice last season, getting starts against St. Louis and Houston, after struggling to replace an injured Patrick Willis in Week 3 against Indianapolis. In his two starts, though, he performed adequately. He also was the go-to guy when Bowman got hurt in the NFC Championship Game.
The other linebacker already on the roster is Nick Moody, but he had all of ten snaps last season. He’s more likely to be fighting for his job than fighting for snaps.
On paper, Wilhoite’s biggest competition will be Chris Borland, whom the 49ers picked up in the third round of the draft. The undersized Borland was a huge playmaker at Wisconsin in a scheme that used some of the 49ers' defensive pressures. If it wasn’t for his short arms and lack of elite speed, he’d have been taken in the first two rounds. As it is, he’s a good enough football player to be in the competition.
The wild card is undrafted free agent Shayne Skov out of Stanford, who unexpectedly went undrafted. He was picked up by the 49ers as an undrafted free agent. CBS Sports had Skov listed as a third- or fourth-round pick, and his measurables are much more aligned than Borland's with that of your traditional linebacker.
Keep an eye out for him to make the roster and even possibly fight for playing time.
There’s one more slot where an undrafted free agent has a shot to win a job on the roster—though not any playing time in the regular season.
Colin Kaepernick is the starting quarterback. Blaine Gabbert will make the roster as well; he’s making too much money to be worth cutting in most circumstances.
That leaves the third quarterback spot, and that’s a complete horse race between McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Kory Faulkner.
Bethel-Thompson, who played his college ball at Sacramento State, hasn’t seen a single snap for the 49ers in either preseason or the regular season. Despite this, he’s been on the 49ers twice now, first in 2011, and then last year, bouncing between the bench and the practice squad.
Kory Faulkner is an undrafted free agent from Southern Illinois. The 49ers discovered him when scouting Northern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s not the most efficient passer in the world, completing less than 60 percent of his passes, but he has the physical tools you need to play in the NFL.
If the 49ers are happy with Gabbert as their number two, they could cut Bethel-Thompson and keep Faulkner on their practice squad. If they feel they need more insurance on the main roster, Bethel-Thompson might be their guy.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.
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